Monday, December 7, 2009

The Most Valuable Lesson

I was recently asked to write a short article for a local newsletter about our family's chess activities and decided to repost it here:

The Most Valuable Lesson

When my wife gave birth to our first child, Alyssa, I brought two books to the hospital to read while they napped: What to Expect in the First Year and Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games. The first choice reflected my uneasiness with my new role as a father--I felt that somehow every thing I did from that day forward would shape my daughter's future in irreversible ways and I was intent on doing everything I could to make the right choices. The second book is a collection of chess games from the career of Bobby Fischer, one of the most enigmatic and talented chess players to have ever pushed a pawn. I had owned the book since I was in high school and over the years had made more than one failed attempt to unearth the chessic secrets that surely laid within. Of course, I should have read the pamphlet, What to Expect in the First Four Days, because if I had I would have left the chess book at home--I never got past page 2.

The truth is that I am a mediocre chess player. I have been mediocre ever since I started and I probably will remain mediocre for the rest of my days. Having had a certain degree of success in various other academic and competitive pursuits, my lack of progress at chess has always nagged at me. At the end of more than one failed episode of chess training, I concluded that I had just started the game too late in life--perhaps some subtle change occurs when we stop believing in fairy-tales that forever closes the door to chess mastery. Some say that we seek to create in our children better versions of ourselves--and so I planned to redeem my failings by teaching our children to play chess at a very young age.

It's now eight years later. In three weeks, my 6 year old son Richard and I are taking a father-son trip to Dallas, Texas for the 2009 National K-12 Grade Chess Championships, where nearly 1000 chess players from around the country will compete to determine the top players in each grade.

Richie is one of the top-rated kindergarteners in the country and is probably one of the top 100 chess players under 7 years old. He has already bested adult players, won countless trophies at local events and placed in the top 10 in the country as a pre-Kindergartener at last year's event.

I'd be proud to tell you that Richie is a genius and let you infer that it must run in the family. But the truth is much more prosaic. The secret to his success is simple: Richie, by virtue of having started when he was 4, has simply played more hours of chess than just about all the other kindergarteners in the country. Studies have found that for almost any activity, whether it is playing a musical instrument, playing chess or even learning to golf, achieving mastery had more to do with hours of effort than prior talent. Having seen the results of my two children diverge greatly based solely on their relative interest and effort put into the game, I can readily agree with their findings: expertise is earned through work, not granted at random.

All this effort, but to what end?

After allowing a child to devote hundreds of hours to a pursuit, often to the unfortunate exclusion of other worthwhile activities, there comes a point for every parent where they probably begin to question the value of mastery. Exactly what is Richie going to do with his chess skills? Will it help him get into a better college or have a better career? The short answer is, of course, "no." Why would it? And the long answer is, of course, "yes."

In chess, as in life, we learn through experience. Through trial and error, study, practice and competition, we make gradual improvements to our game and to ourselves. At times we may feel the opposition is insurmountable, or the required knowledge too vast to retain, or we may simply lose interest or focus. The mark of a successful personality is the ability to overcome these setbacks and obstacles and emerge from each defeat or failure with a desire to get better. To be self-critical and disciplined, to understand his faults and weaknesses and to continuously seek improvement is a mind-set that will remain useful throughout his life in all manners of pursuits.

At a tournament a few weeks ago, Richie lost a particularly difficult game where he was outplayed in an unfamiliar opening called the Dragon Sicilian. A year ago he might have been upset by the loss but on that day he emerged happily from the playing area and said, "I want to learn the Dragon!" I smiled to myself, content in the knowledge that in simply desiring to improve and being willing to put forth the effort, he had already learned the most valuable chess lesson of all.

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